I've had a culture crush on Chicago as long as I can remember. I've worshipped Michael Jordan since I was 5 years old, the documentary Hoop Dreams is my favourite movie (and was my DJ name for three weeks, ha!) and Common's Resurrection and Be are two of my favourite ten albums of all time. More recently I've been swept up in the work of The BreakBeat Poets, a movement of poets reared on hip-hop, just like me. It's the most relatable poetry I've ever found, and Chicago might be the city most like my hometown of Toronto anywhere on the globe. I was lucky to travel to Chicago as part of my work developing arts programs for Toronto youth who have experienced violence as survivors, witnesses and perpetrators. I figured I'd share a bit about what I saw in Toronto's beautiful and equally troubled sister city.
Art is everywhere.
In the limited amount of the city I got to explore, mostly near the Loop, I was excited that there was so much street art to see. It was not confined to back alleys, inner-city 'hoods and factory walls facing the "L" train tracks, there were legal murals all around downtown. The photo above is a mural on the back of what looks like an expensive downtown condo. It can be seen from all the surrounding skyscrapers and hotels. I can't think of a similar piece in Toronto's downtown core, although more serious graffiti followers might say I'm wrong.
It's a beautiful struggle...
I took the Green Line "L" train to the DuSable Museum of African-American History on South Side for the Individual Finals of the Louder Than A Bomb Youth Poetry Festival. I got the chance to be on the judges panel alongside some very distinguished Chicagoans, including one of my favourite BreakBeat Poets, a legendary book publisher, a respected activist and community organizers and two successful businesspeople and philanthropists. It was a huge honour, not to mention a tough job to choose between the top thirteen teenage poets out of over three hundred that had participated in the competition.
Although the DuSable Museum (pronounced Du-SAW-ble) is virtually on the campus of the prestigious University of Chicago, my ride there on the Green Line took me past a few South Side neighbourhoods that appear to be struggling. I saw great examples of the kind of dense residential housing that make for thriving neighbourhoods, older housing types recently coined "the missing middle," including three-story triplexes and small apartment buildings. But here, far from the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods on the North and Near West Sides, many of these buildings appear to be in disrepair, some abandoned, and others, judging by the awkward grassy and gravelly spaces on several blocks, are long gone. Many of the young voices I heard that night told stories of growing up in neighbourhoods left behind by the rest of the city, where the three hours after school is the most dangerous time of day and burials of four-foot caskets are common. Clearly it will take more than urbanist ideas for the South Side to thrive again.
In contrast, my ride on the Red Line subway, which runs underground through the Loop and pops above ground a few blocks north of downtown, was much different. I saw the same dense residential blocks full of houses and apartments, but though the buildings were probably just as old, they were in much better shape. Many had been gutted and refurbished for either residential or commercial use and the streets bustled with cars, buses and pedestrians.
On my way to historic Metro Chicago (pictured above) in Wrigleyville for a benefit for Young Chicago Authors, the non-profit home of the Louder Than A Bomb festival, I saw historic immigrant churches, an advertisement for the Lincoln Park Greektown festival and signs of 24-hour life. After performances by some talented young up-and-coming Chicagoans and headliner Chuck D of Public Enemy(!), the Uber ride back downtown with my colleagues from other cities confirmed that in this part of Chicago, life is just getting started when night falls.
The Loop (The Chicago you see on TV)
Downtown Chicago is beautiful, of course. It appears to be much taller and denser than Toronto, and the office buildings are older and have more character than many cities' modernist glass and steel slabs. The twenty-, thirty- and forty-story buildings go for several blocks in either direction, not just down two or three streets, which is to be expected in the birthplace of the skyscraper. The tallest skyscrapers stand out even further, most notably the Willis Tower, which was once the tallest on earth.
As impressive as the Loop is, the best part of my Saturday afternoon adventure was walking down Wabash St S. looking for the Hebru Brantley "Flyboy" piece pictured below, that I had spotted on the train ride in from Midway Airport (yes, the subway goes all the way to both airports in Chicago!). After snapping shots of several street art pieces on the way there, large and small, I found it outside Roosevelt Station where my guy Kevin Coval said it would be. On the walk back I noticed the "Wabash Art Corridor" flags and several buildings of the arts school Columbia College of Chicago on either side of Wabash, and I said to myself, "Oh. Duh."
I can't wait to go back!